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Walmart and Disney Refuse to Compensate Injured Bangladeshi Workers

Companies need to face up to the reality that some of their products are produced by men, women and children working in sweatshop conditions.

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The Rana Plaza tragedy that took the lives of more than 1,100 garment workers in Bangladesh happened eight months ago, but for the women and men who survived the disaster, the pain and suffering go on. Those who suffered injuries including the loss of limbs and burns, and who helped to rescue people trapped under concrete and metal rods live daily with the horror of the collapse of the nine-story building. Compensation for them has only been slowly meted out, with American companies including Walmart having so far refused to participate in any long-term compensation plans.

After the Rana Plaza building collapsed, some European clothing manufacturers have signed onto an agreement calling for more extensive building codes and fire safety measures. No American companies have signed the accord yet, instead claiming they will create their heightened safety procedures and conduct their own inspections, but taking their time to do so.

As Human Rights Watch details, at least 112 died in a fire in a factory owned by Tazreen Fashions on November 12, 2012. The owners of the garment factory and 11 of their employees have been charged with culpable homicide in the deaths of the workers, the first time that the Bangladeshi government has sought to prosecute them.

Workers say that doors have been locked to make sure they stayed to meet a deadline and that fire drills had not been taken seriously, occurring when they were already outside. Many of those who survived jumped out of windows and have sustained long-term injuries to their limbs and backs that have made returning to work hunched over a sewing machine all but impossible. In many cases, workers who were injured or killed were providing vital funds for their families, allowing siblings to go to school and putting food on the table. Parents, husbands and wives describe selling all their possessions including the metal sheets on the sides of their house and resorting to begging to pay for relatives’ medical care.

Compensation is Slow to Come for Survivors

Bangladesh’s government has provided some modest short-term compensation funds to some of the victims in the form of a one-time payment of $257 when they claimed the body of a relative. Those who have lost limbs qualify for government annuities of about $200 at the most.

There have been constant delays in providing payments to survivors and the families of those who died, with the claimants told they must wait until all of the dead have been identified to receive full compensation packages. The Bangladesh High Court has proposed packages of about $25,000, with factory owners calling for a far smaller figure.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association has provided some of the short-term compensation. The British chain Primark has provided a significant amount (it has been paying salaries for survivors and families of those who died) and Canadian retailer Loblaw has also said it will provide funds. But short-term compensation is already running out and how funds will be provided for the long-term remains uncertain, with many major companies and all of the American brands so far refusing to participate, according to the Amsterdam-based Clean Clothes campaign.

American Companies Refuse to Help

Bangladeshi activists who entered the Tazreen Fashions site after the fire found clothing, labels and documentation from Disney, Dickies, Sears, Walmart and a number of other European companies. The four American companies have not offered the survivors or victims’ families any compensation. In response to inquiries from Human Rights Watch, the companies have provided evasive answers:

Dickies released a statement stating it had cut ties with the factory some time before. The CEO of Delta Apparels told ABC News on December 4, 2012, that Tazreen had not been authorized to produce its clothes. Sears was quoted in the Wall Street Journal of November 29, 2012, saying that merchandise was being made at the factory without its approval. …On December 21, 2012, Disney said that several boxes of its sweatshirts were found at Tazreen, but they had not been manufactured there, and had been stored there without its authorization.

U.S. and global companies need to face up to the reality that some of their products are produced by men, women and children working in sweatshop conditions.

Diamonds that originate from countries such as Angola, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic – where wars and bloody conflicts have too recently occurred, or are occurring, have been called blood diamonds. The more we learn about the conditions in which people toil to make cheap clothes and other items, the more it’s clear that these also bear the traces of humans’ blood and sweat.

With a new year on the horizon, make a resolution to seek out ethically produced goods from manufacturers that go out of the way to show how, where and by who their items are made. San Francisco-based Everlane seeks to provide “radical transparency” about its manufacturing process. Aurora Shoes in upstate New York makes each pair one at a time as do jewelry makers Vim Beget and Tiro Tiro in the Pacific Northwest. In England, Tender Co. makes an assortment of items including ceramics and a woad-dyed whale. Moop in Pittsburgh doesn’t hesitate to take you right into their studio where every bag is sewn.

Making things doesn’t and should not be synonymous with toil and sweatshops. Rather, it can be — it is– empowering. Thousands of Bangladeshi workers sew day in and day out to provide for their families: we must demand that they receive the wages they work so hard for and that, when tragedy strikes, they are not forgotten.

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